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Hillsborough parks tax referendum proposal dies quietly

TAMPA — A proposal to ask voters if they'd support raising Hillsborough County property taxes slightly to pay for parks — and a rebuilt Friendship Trail Bridge — appears to have died quietly Tuesday.

County commissioners tentatively approved a tiny property tax rate cut, their first step toward approving a spending budget for 2013. In doing so, they chose not to bring up or vote on the tax referendum floated earlier this summer by County Administrator Mike Merrill.

"I think it's dead," Merrill said. "Which is fine. It was just an option. I'm not heartbroken."

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who had spoken in favor of using $30 million from a tax hike to rebuild the Friendship Trail Bridge across Tampa Bay, took that idea off the table Tuesday.

Instead, he won support to seek new bids from companies to demolish, rebuild and possibly operate the bridge as an above-water park. He believes there is potential for a public-private partnership that could sharply reduce the need for tax money.

"My main goal is to create a destination point for walkers and bicycling enthusiasts," said Sharpe, who said the bridge would also be open to fishing and vendors who could sell food, refreshments and other items.

The former span of the Gandy Bridge was slated for demolition in 1997, when residents rallied to save it after engineers determined its lifespan for use by cars had ended. It was rechristened the Friendship Trail Bridge, drawing 600,000 annual visitors — walkers, in-line skaters, bicyclists and fishermen among them.

Then engineers inspecting the bridge for repairs found large sections cracking, spitting off concrete chunks into the bay. So the bridge was shuttered in 2008 to even pedestrian traffic as Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, which took over responsibility for the span from the state Department of Transportation, made plans to raze it.

But a new collection of residents rallied again. They floated a proposal to replace the horizontal spans with lighter, narrower, pre-fab sections of metal on top of existing piers.

Commissioners listened, but county inspectors found even some of the supporting piers were not likely to remain structurally sound. Still, commissioners rejected a proposal in June to demolish the bridge as advocates for rebuilding it continue to drum up ideas to make it work.

The action Tuesday came as commissioners met a state requirement to set a tentative tax rate.

In keeping with a practice they've managed for 20 consecutive years, they lowered the tax rate for operating expenses by a small fraction of a percent.

That rate, which still rounds to $10.67 for residents of unincorporated areas, translates to less than a quarter in savings for a homeowner with a home valued at $165,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption, but commissioners do it for symbolism.

Merrill had floated the idea of raising the tax rate slightly for 10 years to pay for $80 million in parks projects, including a rebuilt Friendship Trail. But the idea never gained much traction in an election year.

Hillsborough parks tax referendum proposal dies quietly 07/31/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 11:40pm]
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